Will the One “Right” Way to Play the 5-String Banjo Please Stand Up?

Originally posted September 18, 2015

So, I learned 5-string banjo in the 1960s, following the example of a variety of folk artists, especially Pete Seeger, who – despite being basically a frailer – had mastered several other techniques, and didn’t feel bad about adjusting his playing style to the song.

When I began posting my 5-string tutorials and playing banjo “out” again, I encountered some unexpected resistance from other 5-string players who say the way I play isn’t as “authentic” as the way they play. I’ve also encountered lots of guitar players who have been re-exposed to banjo through bands like Mumford and Sons and wonder what it would take to learn the thing.

Of course Mumford and Sons and their ilk play a style that is barely known in the US – they have the nerve to flatpick individual notes in arpeggios or melodies according to “Irish banjo” tradition. Yes, typical “Irish banjo” players use 4-strings, but you’ll occasionally see a legitimate born-and-bred Irishman doing the same thing on a 5-string. Oh, the horror.

On the other hand, if non-banjo players are starting to consider learning banjo because of Irish-style players, isn’t that a good thing?

Not to folks who have built up a following by being the Internet’s biggest proponent of some traditional North American style, including techniques that were developed decades after Irish banjo was invented.

Concurrently, I’ve gotten lots of inquiries about other kinds of banjos and banjo playing, all of which are also traditional. As I’ve researched the most popular playing techniques of the late 18th and early 19th century, I’ve learned for certain what I always suspected, that there are lots of “authentic” ways to play the five string. So many, in fact, that if you try to come up with something new, you’ll probably find yourself echoing the experiments of some past banjo great.

A few months ago, frustrated with the remarks of some of the “my way or the highway” banjo experts, I wrote about “How to Play the Banjo Wrong.” The title was a joke – as long as you’re using the banjo to make music that people want to listen to, you’re doing it “right.”

In the opening chapters of my Five-String Folk Banjo tutorial, I explain how a 3-finger/Scrugges picker, a “clawhammer” strummer, and a 4-finger picker might play the same part. I even add a “side article about” 3-finger picking for clarification.

Some folks are disappointed that I didn’t write the tutorial exclusively for their favorite technique. Others are appalled that I included 4-finger picking, which is almost unheard of in 21st century America.

Since I started that tutorial, I’ve been exposed to two other techniques that are almost unheard of in 21st century America, although one (Classic Banjo) virtually ruled the 5-string banjo world in the US in the early 1900s, and the other, (Zither Banjo) was huge in Europe at the same time.

Sometimes I hate being right. This time I’m delighted. The next time I use a technique that the banjo picker in the third row doesn’t like, and he lets me know, I can easily say, “Of course it’s authentic – you just don’t recognize it because it’s sixty years older than the style you prefer. Which might just make it more authentic than the technique you use.” Of course, I’d look to see if his friends were bigger or more numerous than my friends before I said it.

Better yet, it provides even more evidence that if you’re getting listenable music out of the banjo, you’re doing it right, even by historical standards.

Enjoy your music, and use it to make other folk’s lives a little more bearable.

And if you own a banjo, PICK ON!

If you don’t own a banjo, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

Paul

Paul

About Paul

Paul Race has been writing and playing all kinds of music since the 1960s, though he tends to favor acoustic and traditional songs. He has created resources like CreekDontRise.com, ClassicTrainSongs.com, and SchoolOfTheRock.com to help other musicians get a good start on their own journeys.

2 Comments

  1. I don’t see what’s wrong with trying to be true to a single legitimate tradition, like Scruggs Picking.

  2. Joey, I don’t either. But I have a problem with folks who claim that folks who don’t do it their way “aren’t doing it right.” Maybe I’m just sensitive, since I don’t tend to “do it right” by many people’s definition. But such feuds scare away newbies, many of whom are told they have to “take sides” before they take their first lesson. 🙁 Not so; the banjo is “bigger than that,” and most banjo players as a rule are “better than that.” But there are a few . . .

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